January 08, 2014

"Tone" Is the Tool of the Oppressor

Consider a well-known, even hackneyed version of a confrontation scene familiar in novel and film. A wife finally faces her husband and demands that they speak honestly about his serial adultery. (The couple need not be married, nor does it have to be a heterosexual couple.) Assume for our purposes, as this kind of fiction also assumes, that both parties explicitly view the relationship as a committed one, and that both parties view monogamy as a critical element.

In this scenario, the party guilty of adultery has engaged in a lengthy series of lies and manipulations. He has deceived his partner in countless ways. His behavior has rendered the committed relationship itself a lie, but he has sought to maintain the relationship's facade. To do this, he had to prevent his partner from learning the truth; in this way, he deprived his partner of both knowledge and the possibility of action -- that is, action she might have taken had she known the facts.

But the partner has nonetheless learned the truth. She decides to question him about his betrayals. At first, he denies that he has been unfaithful, telling her still more lies. But she is prepared for that, and she tells him the facts she has learned, which prove the reality of his affairs beyond all dispute. He seeks to minimize his betrayals and offers one threadbare rationalization after another ("We were having some problems then," "I was very upset about losing that promotion," "You had become very emotionally distant"). The partner points out that he never discussed these excuses with her openly and honestly, and that if she had become "emotionally distant," that was undoubtedly the result of his numerous lies and the resulting loss of intimacy between them.

As he continues to offer excuses and to minimize his own actions, his partner grows more and more upset. As her frustration with her partner's evasions and refusal to deal with her honestly increases, her voice rises and she speaks more heatedly. She might even yell at her partner more than once.

Now the husband/partner has his escape route, and he seizes it immediately: "I can't talk to you when you're like this. You're getting hysterical. Perhaps you should rest for a while, and we can try to talk about it when you're calm again. I hope you'll have more perspective about this later."

He's objecting to her "tone" -- and this is the voice of oppression. Keep in mind that, in this particular scenario, he is the guilty party. He has had a series of affairs and one-night stands, he has betrayed their commitment to monogamy, he has deceived his partner over a lengthy period of time, and he has ceaselessly manipulated her. When confronted, his manipulations and deceit continue. He will not admit the truth, and he seeks to avoid the consequences of his partner knowing the truth. Yet now -- when she speaks about the truth and her understanding of it -- he seeks to make the resulting conflict her fault. And he does more, and worse, than that: he condescends to her and insults her, accusing her of "hysteria," of being "out of control," of failing to behave "like an adult."

I was put in mind of this phenomenon by this tweet ("Silber reminds me that [it] is always 'libertarian' men who discuss 'tone' whenever a woman speaks.") and by watching Blue Jasmine yesterday. The Woody Allen film, which features a spectacular performance by Cate Blanchett, has a scene like the one described above. It's complicated by the fact that the Blanchett character is portrayed as genuinely unstable, but you can subtract that element from it and the basic dynamic is identical to the scene in countless other films (and books). And I must note that, as engrossing and well-done as the film is, the fact that Blanchett's character is the unstable one is another manifestation of our culture's basic orientation. The unfaithful husband, played by Alec Baldwin, is a financial criminal, who has stolen money from many people and ruined their lives. He is finally caught, and he commits suicide in jail. He is not precisely a model of mental health or moral probity. [Blue Jasmine is essentially a character study, and the story details won't detract in any noticeable way from your enjoyment of the film. And I think it is worth seeing simply for Blanchett's remarkable performance. But skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know anything else about it.]

But the focus of the film is not on the husband, but on the unstable, mentally ill wife. Allen adds a story element toward the end which makes this focus notably worse. The husband is caught because the wife reports his activities to the FBI. She does so after she realizes the extent of his infidelities. The "feel" of these developments is that she reports him out of spite, merely as a way to "get back at him." She later expresses regret that she reported him at all. Never mind that he actually was a vicious crook, and that he would have continued to ruin more people's lives had she not reported him.

In these respects, Allen's screenplay is yet another predictable result of a culture which views women as fundamentally evil, a foundational belief whose roots I discussed in detail in "Kill that Woman!" Women are "weak," "too emotional," prone to "hysteria," often "out of control." It is not coincidental that these same criticisms are often leveled at gay men; in a related essay, I remarked: "All too often, those whom we would destroy, we first feminize." In "Kill that Woman!," I discussed Oscar Wilde's superb retelling of the Salome story. These were my concluding paragraphs concerning the wider lesson:
It is inconceivable to Herod -- just as it is inconceivable to most men -- that the fault or the responsibility should be his. The fault and the responsibility must be Salome's. The fault and the responsibility must always be woman's. In any confrontation between a man and a woman in our culture, there is only one party to be punished: the woman. ...

Kill that woman. That is the motive, and that is the goal. To the extent women are successful, to the extent they threaten men's monopoly on power and control, they must be demeaned, diminished, treated with unending cruelty, and mocked. When all else fails, they must be eliminated. Kill that woman.

So ends our story for today.
The shift from the facts and arguments at issue to the "tone" with which they are being discussed is a common method by which a member of an oppressing class seeks to maintain domination and control. It is encountered in many relationships, and not only between romantic partners. It is a ploy often used by a boss in a work situation when a subordinate dares to complain about unjust or even outrageous treatment ("Yes, of course I understand your complaint, but why do you have to get so angry about it? We can't discuss it if you're going to get so upset."). And it comes up in ways that are profoundly sickening.

Several years ago, I wrote about the story of a young boy named Billy Wolfe, who became the target for continual, viciously cruel, often physically damaging bullying beginning when he was only 12 years old. (See "Let the Victims Speak.") I reprinted an especially powerful and disturbing letter about this horrifying story that had been sent to the NYT in response to its report:
The fortunate thing for Billy Wolfe is that he has supportive parents who are showing him acceptable ways of fighting back. The tragedy is that there are far too many kids in similar situations who, for one reason or another, can't turn to their parents.

As a former teacher in the New York City school system, I know how reluctant school officials often are to take definitive action in such circumstances. Yet, when a victim explodes or acts out in unacceptable ways, these same officials are shocked and indignant.

Why can't the bullies who make Billy's life miserable every day be suspended from school until they learn that intimidating and tormenting their peers will not be tolerated?
Keep in mind the other kinds of examples of this dynamic that I've mentioned as you read my comments on this letter:
Focus on the critical sentence: "Yet, when a victim explodes or acts out in unacceptable ways, these same officials are shocked and indignant."

What exactly are these "unacceptable ways" of exploding or acting out? Who decided they were "unacceptable"? Why is it that "reluctant school officials" will not "take definitive action" against the bullies -- thus tacitly conceding that the bullying itself is not all that "unacceptable" -- while the same officials are "shocked and indignant" when the victim protests too strongly?

This pattern, and certain of its origins, will be found throughout history, in every culture around the world. The pattern is a simple and deadly one: the oppressor -- that is, those who are in the superior position, whether they are parents, school officials, or the government, or in a superior position merely by virtue of physical strength -- may inflict bodily harm and/or grievous, lifelong emotional and psychological injury, but the victim may only protest within the limits set by the oppressor himself. The oppressor will determine those forms of protest by the victim that are "acceptable." ...

[T]here is another reason the victim cannot fully experience and give voice to his anger -- and that is his certain knowledge, conveyed by parents, teachers, the government and everyone else in a position of authority, that displays of such emotions are not permitted. If you go ahead and reveal how angry you are in defiance of the prohibition, you will be severely punished for your transgression.

Think about this very carefully for a moment. The oppressor may inflict unimaginable cruelties on innocent victims -- but the victims may only protest in ways which the oppressor deems "acceptable." The profound injustice is obvious, but not in itself remarkable or unexpected: this is how oppression operates. But ask yourself about the deeper reason for the prohibition. This is of the greatest importance: the victims may only protest within a constricted range of "permissible" behavior because, when they exceed the prescribed limits, they make the oppressors too uncomfortable. They force the oppressors to confront the nature of what they, the oppressors, have done in ways that the oppressors do not choose to face.
In the earlier essays, I emphasized the parallels between the bullies we encounter in our personal lives and the behavior of the State, and particularly the United States government; you may consult the earlier articles for details.

Let us briefly consider two examples from politics which follow the identical pattern. The U.S. government sends its military across the world, thousands of miles away, to bomb, subjugate and/or invade nations and peoples that have not threatened us, and could not threaten us in any serious manner. Yet when certain of the people who live in these other countries dare to fight back -- and especially when they attack and even murder U.S. personnel -- they are written off as "terrorists" (or, at best, common criminals) who deserve only death. Our ruling class demands that those the U.S. government bombs or seeks to destroy in other ways (by means of economic blockades, for example) acknowledge our noble and good "intentions," and that we supposedly act on their (that is, the oppressed people's) behalf. Any form of resistance to the U.S. drive to global hegemony is "unacceptable."

We saw the same phenomenon in connection with the Occupy movement several years ago. The ruling class increasingly brutalizes and impoverishes vast swathes of the U.S. populace, but when a very small group of individuals protest -- and when a very few individuals within that very small group commit the "outrage" of breaking a few windows or causing other very minor physical damage -- all we hear about (even from many "progressives") is how detestable it is that the protesters have acted in "violent" ways. Such violence -- not the violence committed every hour of every day by the government, at all levels, but the very limited, exceedingly brief "violence" of a minuscule number of protesters -- is utterly "unacceptable."

Whether or not it is the intention of those who criticize the victims for their response, in all these cases (and in many others that you can supply) the result is to deflect attention from the original crime and the original perpetrator to the behavior of the victims themselves in response to their victimization. One necessary effect is the minimization of both the original crime and the guilt of the original perpetrator, and a hugely disproportionate focus on certain, usually very limited tactics employed by those who are the victims. The profound injustice involved should be obvious. What must also be appreciated is the significant degree to which this shifting of focus redounds to the benefit of the oppressors, and the manner in which all of these examples constitute "blaming the victim." And this is the same mechanism we see in the fictional confrontation scene of the kind I described, as well as in the real-life counterparts I've mentioned.

Without any exceptions that I can think of, at least insofar as discussions of political matters are concerned, complaints about "tone" ultimately serve the same purposes. Several days ago, I discussed such complaints with regard to serious, systematic criticisms of the leak methodology adopted by Greenwald & Co., particularly those criticisms offered by Tarzie and me. I urge you to keep in mind what I consider to be the inevitable result of the manner in which Greenwald & Co. have chosen to publish only a tiny fraction of the documents Snowden provided to them. This is the brief summary of those final effects that I offered in one article:
Consider the enormous value of the hugely restricted publication of the Snowden documents to the various States involved. Rusbridger, Greenwald, et al. all trumpet the great triumph represented by the "debate" publication has engendered -- the clamor of public voices demands "reform," so committees will be formed, investigations will be undertaken, and when the dust has settled, life for the States involved will go on almost exactly as before (remember: if the NSA were disbanded today, identical surveillance would continue via other agencies and institutions of power) -- and the States will be able to claim that the public knows the "truth," and their activities now have the full blessing of informed public consent.
I think you might agree that this result will be disastrous in the extreme. If the Snowden material had been disseminated in a much wider (and faster) manner, it might well have been the catalyst for the beginnings of a strong resistance movement. As things stand now, the Snowden leaks are being frittered away in a way that ensures the States involved will not face a serious threat of any kind in the foreseeable future.

Both Tarzie and I have argued our cases at considerable length. (The previous post contains links to some of our articles, so you can peruse those arguments as you wish.) But now all we hear about is our "tone," and that we occasionally have been cutting, or mocking, or harsh in our treatment of these issues and some of the persons involved. Remember: these issues concern a brutal Death State and the ways in which we might finally be able to mount a challenge to its actions that could cause genuine consternation among the ruling class. Also remember that the Death State claims absolute power: the power to kill anyone it wishes, any time it wants, for any reason it chooses. But it appears that if we wish to protest against these hideous crimes -- and if we dare to criticize those who turn a magnificent opportunity for challenging the monstrous ruling class into yet another avenue for meaningless "debate" and "reform" -- we can only do so while speaking in the dulcet tones of the poet who murmurs of gentle spring breezes.

I consult history, and I look at the lessons of the past. I know -- as you do, too, as does anyone who considers the question honestly -- that such a poet ends up mangled and probably dead, choking in the end on his own sweet phrases in a blood-soaked gutter. We might end up dead as well, but at least a few more people may know that we've been here, and that we had something of consequence to say.

Given the stakes involved, when I see people complain about my "tone," I say: Fuck that. And given the horrifying, ongoing crimes of the ruling class, if you truly think the "tone" of a few protesters against these vast crimes is a subject that demands your oh-so-earnest attention and correction, I also say: Fuck you.

Oh, dear, oh, dear. Am I making some people uncomfortable? Christ, I hope so.